Think “Maui” and you probably think geriatric tourists wearing socks with sandals. But, get away from the overpriced resorts and head into the jungle and you’ll find one of Hawaii’s last bastions of local culture. Which means there’s local food too. Here’s what to eat and how to find it.
Red Sand Beach. AP Photo.
Last year, an artist friend who’d lived there for 10 years made us a hand drawn map of Hana and Kipahulu and insisted we go there on holiday. We did that and, armed with his name and introductions, we made a bunch of new friends, camped on a secret black sand beach and just had an amazing time in a place that’s largely off-limits to outsiders. Such a good time, in fact, that we just went back and will continue to regularly in the future.
Done this way, the trip is anything but expensive. Shop for off-peak airfares and that several hundred bucks will be the the only big financial hit required.
We obviously can’t share all of those relationships or locations, but we can at least give you the ability to find and build your own. It’s probably the neatest part of Hawaii, just one that takes an open mind, patience and a sense of adventure to enjoy.
Because there’s so few businesses, in the conventional sense, out there, you should largely plan on cooking your own dinners. Many of these recommendations are only open for lunch, one or two days a week. And, while all these places are very affordable, particularly given how great the food is, most of them are also cash-only, so bring some of that.
One of the best shortcuts I can give you for fitting in amongst a bunch of hippies and underemployed Hawaiians is to skip the traditional rental car players and instead use Maui Cruisers to rent some old beater. With one of those, plus a relaxed attitude, most people now think Lara and I are locals.
So, let’s look at spots to eat, staring in Paia and driving around Maui’s eastern side from north to south. There is only one road, it’d take an awful lot of effort to get lost.
Coconut Glen’s: The best ice cream in the world is made from coconut milk and other local ingredients. Here, Glen has opened a little truck, just a block or so up from Mana Foods. It should be open most afternoons. I like the chili-chocolate and mint chip flavors, but they’re all fucking mind blowing.
Mana Foods: You’ll want groceries if you’re staying anywhere further than Paia and this is the last decent place to buy them. It’s still by no means a regular grocery store, so prepare yourself for unwashed hippies. You can order homemade kombucha from the deli and the fruits section is full of weird, exotic stuff you’ve never heard of. If it’s there, it’ll be in-season, so just buy the stuff that looks weird.
Hana Hou Cafe: Some of the best traditional Hawaiian dishes on the island are made here by Leon, a French chef who used to cook for Le Bernadin in New York. Start with a Pohole Fern salad, then get a Squid Luau, Kalua Pork and Poi plate lunch. Leon also makes an excellent Mango Daiquiri.
It’s just sorta a shack and a covered patio off a strip mall parking lot, but prepare yourself for a long lunch or even dinner. This is one of the few suggestions here that’ll be open seven nights a week, until 9pm.
Morning coffee in camp.
Coconut Glen’s: Just before you get to Hana, you’ll find Glen’s original shack to the right of the highway. He’ll probably be standing out front, chopping up coconuts with a machete when you arrive. You’ll use one of those as a bowl and a sliver of a shell as a spoon. Glen and his significant other are crazy people, so plan on sitting in the shack and eating your ice cream while listening to their wacky stories, bizarre conspiracy theories — the church “infected” Hawaii with Christianity using the lilikoi, which doesn’t stop it being delicious — and frequent insistence that you tell them their ice cream is the best in the world. Luckily, it is, so you’ll have no problem agreeing with machete-wielding maniac.
Hana Farms Banana Stand: There’s a number of banana stands on the way into Hana, but hold out for the Hana Farms one. It’s on the right, about two miles past Glen’s and is brown with a brown grass roof. There, they sell a number of banana-based products, all sourced from the farm and notably including banana bread, banana butter and banana curry sauce; they’re all great and you can ship anything home from there as a souvenir or gift.
They have WiFi — we mentioned cell service stops in Paia, right? — and friendly staff who can help you figure Hana out. Just realize that they’re inundated with annoying tourists in yellow Camaros all day, every day and try not to be one of those people. If you can manage to be cool, you can tell them you know me and they should be a little more helpful than usual.
Whatever you do, make sure you come back on either Friday or Saturday, from 4-8pm for the best pizza on earth. Alan makes it in a Polynesian-style clay oven of his own construction using ingredients sourced from this and other local farms. It’s served wrapped in a banana leaf and — this is coming from someone who lived in Brooklyn — really is the best pizza you will ever eat.
Pizza night is BYOB, so bring a case of beer, share it, and make new friends. It’s the biggest (read: only) social event that re-occurs weekly in Hana, so everyone who’s anyone will be in attendance and this is your chance to learn about local life and maybe even get invited to participate in it.
If you really want to make friends here, show up at the stand earlier in the week and ask about volunteering on Farm Day, which is Wednesdays. Spending a day working hard in the jungle is a reward all its own, but this is also how you’ll earn a little respect and get people to trust you so they might tell you where all the secret waterfalls, beaches and hikes are.
Photo: Mark Cameron.
Hasegawa General Store: There’s two stores in Hana, this and the Hana Ranch Store across the street. I prefer Hasegawa as it has a little more palatable food selection and, well, I just find anything associated with the Ranch to be annoying. Here, you’ll be able to buy beer, basic foods, basic tools and outdoor equipment (although not much beyond maybe a tarp, duct tape and bug spray) and there’s even an ATM. Open from 7 to 7 every day, this is the one reliable part of Hana that you’ll end up returning to virtually every day.
Surfing Burro: Next door to Hasegawa is a little orange food truck that’s open for breakfast most days. Here, you’ll find a decent cup of coffee and the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had. This is the one spot in Hana where you can reliably get one or two bars of cell reception, coming to you all the way from the Big Island, 26 miles or so to your east.
Thai Food By Pranee: You’ll hear people describe this as “The best Thai food outside Thailand.” I’ve never been to Thailand, so can’t weigh in there, but it is seriously good. You’ll find the usual Pad Thai and whatnot, but the real treat is seeing what the local catch is and getting that in the curry of your choice. Pranee’s is located just up from Hana Bay, on the other side of the ball fields from the highway. Walk away from town, on the street that the restaurant is on and at the south end you’ll find the trail to Red Sand Beach.
Pranee’s was closed the entire week we were there this time, which was a serious bummer, but it’s usually open for lunch, most days.
The view of Koki from Troy’s. Photo: Ryan.
Troy’s Plate Lunch: Only open Thursday’s for lunch, Troy’s is well worth the visit. He’s a big spear fisherman, and will serve you whatever he’s caught that week, breaded and fried and stuffed with crab or lobster. His barbecue pork is also delicious, as is anything in his steam plates. Troy himself run the stand, so take the time to chat with him while you’re there. He’s one of the friendliest guys on the island. If you’re cool, he might even give directions to some of his fishing spots or even invite you to tag along.
Here, you sit at tables located next to Koki beach, with a view of the ocean, swirling terns, blue skys and green palm trees. A better location for a restaurant I have never seen.
Koki is the best place in Hana to catch a wave. Just beware the deadly rip-current that will pull you out to sea to the right, as you’re standing on the beach, looking at the ocean. I’d only consider it safe to swim on the left half of the beach and, if there’s children or weak swimmers with you, I’d want to appoint someone strong and fit to be lifeguard, too.
Cafe Attitude: Owned by the same people as LA’s famous Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre vegan restaurants, the only place to eat in Kapahulu is only open on Sunday nights and is also sort of an open mic poetry reading/comedy/musical event. Mostly attended by local hippies, you’ll get a real dose of local color if you put in the effort to attend.
Bully’s Burgers: Driving back towards Kihei (avoid like the plague) and Wailea (rich white person land) you’ll find this burger stand about halfway there from Kipahulu. Worth visiting for the views alone, the burgers are also excellent and are made from the cows that live on the hills behind the stand.
There’s one hotel in Hana, Travaasa. That’s a chain and is as expensive and bland as you’d expect. In need of a bloody mary and curious, we visited one day for brunch, where I was served one of the crappiest steak-and-eggs of my life and paid through the nose for the privilege.
The views are amazing from the restaurant’s patio, but you look at them over the school’s ball fields, where kids who can’t afford to eat there are playing. That contrast is jarring and isn’t really the reason you should be visiting Hana. It’d be way prettier just to sit on the beach and cook your own burgers over a fire or little camp stove.
For the same reason, I’d also avoid the Hana Ranch Restaurant. It’s just total tourist food: bad hamburgers and soggy french fries. But, they do leave the bathrooms out back unlocked; they’re the most reliable place to poop in town.
Outdoors shower at Maui Eco Retreat.
The eternal Hana conundrum. If you want to camp, you have two options: Wainapanapa State Park in Hana, which is dirty, crowded and must be booked well in advance or Haleakala National Park in Kipahulu, which as a National Park, is reliable, affordable, clean and beautiful. That’s 9.5 miles or about an hour south of Hana. Drive to the end and walk out to the campsites under the trees, atop the cliffs.
There’s other places to camp that aren’t official. It’s going to have to be up to you to find them with the help of the new friends you’re going to make. A day’s labor on Hana Farms may net you an invite to camp there, but no promises.
There’s a few AirBnB houses in Hana, which book up way ahead of time. They’re probably you’re best option.
Faced with several days of solid rain, Lara and I abandoned our private beach for the Maui Eco Retreat, 24 miles or so back down the Hana Highway. That place is incredible, with shockingly clean facilities, beautiful views and excellent swimming and hiking, both down the ocean cliffs and in/around their very own, 150-foot waterfall. It feels like staying in Hana, but is obviously a long drive away, so bear that in mind. One of their private cabins/buddhist temples would be a great place to spend a honeymoon or just a romantic weekend. You could easily spend two or three days here without wanting or needing to leave the property.
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